Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s wing gambit and how it is bringing the best out of Paul Pogba & United.

Cavani, Pogba and Shaw’s celebration after United take the lead in 79' min v Spurs.

Let me tell you first what a Wing gambit is? It’s a chess opening move used against a defensive strategy called “ Sicilian Defense”. The aim is to use a pawn to regain control of an important central square on the chessboard. I used this term because this is how Solskjær is using Paul Pogba in his current Manchester United setup. Let’s see how!

When the team-sheet came out vs. Manchester City at Old Trafford earlier in December 2020, everyone were scratching their head at What Solskjær was trying to achieve by placing Pogba out on the left wing. Some flat out said he doesn’t know what he was doing and some just said it was a blind attempt by Solskjær to have all his best players on the pitch, without having to drop his favorite McFred pivot or Bruno Fernandes. I agree with the latter, not the part where it was a ‘blind attempt’ of course.

Solskjær has already been experimenting with Pogba on the wing throughout the entire season with largely positive results (i.e. PSG away, RBL at OT, Man City at OT, Liverpool away, etc..).

Man United don’t have an out and out defensive midfielder at the club, a midfield where Pogba and Fernandes play together as free 8s, becomes an extremely difficult thing to do. What about Matić? Well….Solskjær opting not to take Fred off, who was 1 foul away from a red card in United’s loss to PSG at OT earlier in the season, tells you everything you need to know about what Solskjær thinks of Matić’s ability to keep up with an energetic midfield when United won’t have majority of the ball.

Solskjær had to find a solution. He needed to get United’s best player, if not, then joint best (for the Pogba fans & Fernandes fans) on the field constantly. The solution was 4231/4222 hybrid. He still wanted to keep his default structure of 4231 but he sacrificed a forward for a midfielder for control, creativity, and without losing any defensive balance. Yes, United will have less goal scorers but they will have more creativity for the ones already on the pitch and they will be able to have more possession (than normal) vs. stronger opposition.

Now, we will analyze why Pogba on the wing creates a new dimension for United and we will look at how this chess move helped Solskjær’s Man United seize a 1–3 win at White Hart Lane on Sunday vs. Mourinho’s Spurs.

Let’s just take a quick look at what Pogba did v City earlier this season just to see the trend in the move as we explain Sunday’s game.

On the left wing, Pogba looked to drop into the left half space and provided good passing angles for both Shaw and Fred. In that instance, it helped United beat Man City’s high press. If Fernandes moved out-wide, Pogba occupied the central 10 area to have an extra body in midfield and provided a release from the right side. Notice how the 4 in midfield form a “box”.

Pogba played 3 key roles in Solskjær’s plan vs. Spurs:

  1. Focal Point up top.
  2. Operated in the left half space.
  3. Centrally as 2-double 10 with Fernandes.

First: As a focal point.

Early in the match, Pogba pushed high up with Cavani [Sometimes even further] when United were looking to play more direct with a long ball over the top. Pogba would push up and Cavani drops into the space created by Fernandes, who was dragging Højbjerg out of position all match. A ball would then be played by Maguire, Lindelöf, or Fernandes who dropped into the wide area, as mentioned. Refer to the images below.

Look at where Fernandes was in the images above and the 2nd image just below. Fernandes moved wide on both scenarios which made Højbjerg leave his position for Cavani to drop the space created. Alternatively, Pogba waited on the end of crosses to either head directly or flick on for a Cavani run.

Paul Pogba has won the joint most contested aerial duels in this match with Maguire (4).

Second: Operated in the left half space.

This second role was the trend that was seen throughout the entire match. Pogba tucked in deeper into the left half space dragging Aurier with him. We saw this in the 1st goal United scored that got disallowed for a “foul” on Son, check second image below. Additionally, Pogba in the left half-space created a huge space on the wing for Luke Shaw.

This ‘space’ became a cat and mouse chase between Moura and Shaw. Shaw would occasionally give Moura the slip and Moura has to chase him back & vice versa. Aurier tried to cover the dangerous ball to Shaw at times but that meant he would leave Pogba free in the half space to receive the ball uncontested. Notice in the images above how Aurier is always close to Pogba and Shaw is free to run down the channel. In the second image where United was near Spurs’ penalty box, look at where Moura was positioned. Shaw’s runs and positioning forced him all the way back to Spurs’ last line. This made Spurs look like they were defending with 5 at the back but it was United’s movement down that left that forced them into it.

This was all caused by Pogba positioning. Again, look at Pogba then Shaw and Moura in the below image.

Pogba in the half space narrowing Spurs defensive line.

Third: Centrally as 2-double 10 with Fernandes.

This role was more & more apparent in the second half as Solskjær adjusted things at HT. Pogba started to drift more and more centrally. This overwhelmed Højbjerg, who now was in 2v1situation after spending all 1st half running after Fernandes.

Pogba pushed more centrally in the 2nd half.

This allowed United to bypass Lo Celso and Ndombélé to find Pogba or Fernandes, and had a 2v1 advantage vs. Højbjerg which gave them options and runners going forward. If Pogba or Fernandes received the ball, the other 3 forwards would run ahead of the ball carrier, which resulted in a lot of good situations and chances for United. This was Solskjær midfield “box”.

To nullify Pogba’s move inwards, Mourinho changed his formation from 433(4141) -> 4231 and brought on Moussa Sissoko for Giovani Lo Celso.

Sissoko was basically tasked to man-mark Pogba when he moves inwards. The idea is to free Aurier from getting dragged with Pogba and stop Shaw from having all the space in the world to run into. Additionally, Moura won’t have to track back & remained up top as a key player and danger on the counter. However the drawback, the man marking on the double pivot ‘McFred’ loosened up and it allowed them more time and space on the ball. United still had superiority in midfield with Pogba, as such they still controlled possession better.

Mourinho introduced a double pivot to mark Pogba and reduce the space Shaw got.

Despite the man marking from Sissoko & Højbjerg, the Frenchman and the Portuguese were too much to handle. They both still got out of press with ease (especially Pogba) and they both were influential in the 2nd and 3rd goal for United.

Conclusion

In the end, Manchester United came out 3–1 winners vs Spurs who just had no answers to United going forward. The key to it all was Paul Labile Pogba — there were others but Pogba was more significant and the article is about his role. Moving on, he played the 3 key roles in the win and despite United losing another forward to a midfielder, the creativity, the agility and the drive power in midfield that the Frenchman brings to this United team was well worth the risk. I called it the Solskjær Wing Gambit, as to me, this was a chess match. And Pogba was a perfectly used chess piece by Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Man United celebrating Edinson Cavani’s diving header goal.

Final remark

This is the first piece that I wrote in the form of an article. Please share it with your friends and family who love football tactics. I would be extremely appreciative if I get as much feedback as possible. Follow me on Twitter @AbdelBeheri, if you’d like to read more from me. Abdel. :)

Just a guy interested in football.